Good Reading : June 2005
going back last word EMILY MAGUIRE finds that rereading a book at different stages of life can be like revisiting an old friend – or suddenly confronting a stranger. 54 goodreading There are two types of avid read- ers: those who aim to devour as many books as humanly possible before they leave the world, and those who reread. I fall fir mly into the latter camp. The first time I read Jane Eyre I was 11 years old and had faced no greater tragedy in life than having to share a room with my older sister, yet I felt instant kinship with the neglected 10-year-old orphan Jane. At 15, uninterested in reading about sad little girls who reminded me too much of my recent self, I skipped straight to the part where 18-year-old Jane sets out for her first job as governess of a country house. I could practically taste the long-awaited freedom. My third reading, at eighteen, was life-changing. ‘Who in the world cares for you?’ Jane asks her heartbroken self, and me, and a million other girls trying to be women. Her response, ‘I care for myself.The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself ’, had a greater effect on me than any other phrase in literature. I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it on my mirror. I copied it onto the back of a business card and kept it in my wallet. I will care for me! The only book I have read more often than Jane Eyre is The Great Gatsby, which I have reread every year since I was 16. Depending on what is going on in my life I switch between identifying with Nick, Daisy, Gatsby himself and, one awful year, Myrtle Wilson. Sometimes I feel contempt for each and every character, sometimes pity, most recently, compassion.The first half-dozen readings I was absorbed by the story itself, tearing through to reach the gory hit-and-run, George Wilson’s fatal grief and Gatsby float- ing on the swimming pool. Around the seventh read I began to notice the lightness and precision of the language and the faultless construction. Having read it more than a dozen times I’m still not really sure whether it’s a cau- tionary, consoling or inspirational read. I suppose it depends on what I need it to be. Rereading a beloved book can be risky. Last year, wanting a comfort read, I picked up Anne of Green Gables, which was a favourite of mine almost 20 years ago. Reading it as a child I remember being upset by Matthew’s death – I may even have shed a tear – but I was not inconsolable as I had been when Charlotte died in Charlotte’s Web. So I was unprepared for how deeply the death affected me this time around. I realised that far from the shocking event I had believed it to be as a child, Matthew’s death was ordinary and as inevitable as the death of my own grandparents.The deeply personal grief I felt for him now was directly connected to my adult aware- ness of the mortality of those I love. Another risk of rereading a child- hood favourite is discovering the plot is contrived, the prose purple, the tone didactic or the ideas offensive. For this reason, I wish I’d never reread The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Peter Pan. Both had long held a place in my mind as Great Books and I feel betrayed to discover that they are not that at all. Perhaps in another 20 years I will try again – who knows how I will feel about them then? At 20 I hated Madame Bovary, except for the ending which I felt was just. I was newly wed and thought Emma deserved everything she got for treating her husband with such con- tempt. Six years later I was forced to reread Madame Bovary for a university course and could hardly believe it was the same book. Emma Bovary was, I saw now, a passionate but naïve young woman caught in the gap between fantasy and reality.When a fellow stu- dent called Emma ‘a spoiled tart’ I was reminded of the sanctimonious young bride I had been. I felt confident, sud- denly, that I would never succumb to nostalgia or hubris. If I could change my opinion of Madame Bovary so much in six years, imagine all of the things I may understand or believe before my life is through. This is the joy of rereading: the book becomes a mirror in which you can see who you once were and who you are now.The child who felt closer to Jane Eyre than to any living person and who dreamed of being whisked away in the night by Peter Pan, the girl who thought it better to abandon herself to someone else’s idea of her than to be alone, the young woman determined to never do any such thing – these earlier versions of me are written into my favourite books, and whenever I return to those pages I will find myself there, as I was, as I am, as I’d like to be. This is the joy of rereading: the book becomes a mirror in which you can see who you once were and who you are now.